Once found along most of the Apennine mountain chain, the range of the bear has been reduced by habitat loss and direct persecution. Today, the Apennine bear exists as a remnant, isolated population, most of which lives in a core area of just 2500 km² in and around the Abruzzo National Park.
Bears need large areas to live in. Apennine bears have smaller home ranges than other brown bears, but the average Apennine bear is still predicted to need 50 – 80 km² of home range to find enough food, that’s the equivalent of 13,179 football pitches! The current core area of 2500km² can therefore only be expected to support between 50 – 31 bears, which is not enough for a sustainable population.
Around the core area, there are suitable habitats and expansion into these areas would allow population increase and reduce the risk of extinction. However recent studies of the Apennine bear have shown that both inside and outside the core area, more bear deaths are due to human-induced mortality than any other factor. Therefore reducing conflict with humans and the associated mortality risks, is a key component of our work to enable the bear population to naturally recover and expand its range.
What is bear habitat?
A recent study in the Maiella National Park explored the affect of climate, elevation, aspect, slope steepness, soil type, vegetation type and human impacts, like pastoralism, distance to roads, towns, villages, ski-resorts and the protective zoning of the national park, on where bears are found.
This study and many others suggest that bear habitat changes throughout the year, but is likely to be steeply sloping, rugged, high elevation, have a temperate climate, with rich soil type and diverse plant species.
The Maiella study found that south facing aspects effected bear presence in summer, presumably because the sunny slopes have more fruit bushes and trees than cold north facing slopes, and fruit is the bears main food in summer. Temperature was found to predict bear presence all year round, providing evidence that Marsican bear habitats are associated with a temperate climate.
Bear habitat is also related to elevation and soil type all year round. Bear habitat is often on nutrient rich soils with high pant diversity. Rich soils are more productive and used by farmers, which creates a mosaic of fields, pastures and residual forest patches which provide more variety of foods to the bear than closed canopy forest. Abandoned farmland and beech forest are often bear habitat because of the bears varied diet.
Steep slopes have been found to represent bear habitat in the Apennines and Alps. Numerous studies have shown bears select rugged habitat. A Swedish study showed that although only 29% of the study area was rugged, it contained 74% of all female and 57% of all male bears. Rugged terrain, because of its frequent changes in aspect and numerous south-facing slopes is believed to provide greater plant diversity, have plant food earlier in the year, more ant hills and better cover, lower human access, areas where humans do not visit and increased availability of denning sites.
Where do bears avoid?
Many studies from Europe, North America and Asia report that bears generally avoid people and human settlements. Bears are afraid of humans and female bears won’t raise their cubs in areas without quiet undisturbed places where people don’t visit. Avoidance of human disturbance is also well known for other species of wildlife, including birds and ungulates. However, Italy is densely populated and even in the National Parks and mountains there are many roads, towns and agricultural areas, all of which bears try to avoid, except in the rare cases that the bears are food conditioned.
In an Apennine wide study, a negative relationship was found between human settlements and occurrence of bears. A study in the Maiella National Park found that ski-resorts strongly negatively affected bear presence; bears avoided areas within 10km of the ski resorts. This was believed to be due to the large extent of the resorts, the well-lit multistoried apartments and human activities disturbing bears in an otherwise dark and tranquil environment. Additionally the construction and maintenance work on residences and ski-infrastructure creates local traffic and noise beyond the winter sports season. Other studies have shown large-scale development and associated human activity to act as semi-permeable barrier to bear movements and reviews of disturbance studies have revealed that the majority of animal disturbance by human activity occurs within 10 km of the infrastructure.
In Sweden a study involving 106 radio collared brown bears, investigated habitat use in relation to distance from resorts and towns, terrain ruggedness, sex and age of bears. 92% of mature male bears (over 7 yrs old) only used habitat more than 10km away from human settlements. Suitable habitat types close to towns and resorts were avoided. 52% of all the bears using habitats less than 10 km from settlements and resorts were young bears, less than 4 yrs old. The authors suggest that these bears are young bears searching for home ranges in the process of leaving their mothers. Older bears, which are more abundant in the areas more than 10km from the towns, can represent a risk to sub-adult bears by predation and out compete younger bears for mating rights. Hence, most of the younger bears moving away from their mothers, went to the ‘‘empty’’ areas surrounding resorts and towns, generally unoccupied by older bears. Similarly, in Alaska sub-adult brown bears have been found to forage more closely to experimentally introduced human bear-viewers than any other age group.